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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

An Amateur’s Guide to Making Super Cute Cakes

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I love making cakes for my kids’ birthdays. The birthday cakes my mom made for me as a child are cherished memories, so it’s something I want to pass on to my own children.

When I started making cakes for our kids, they never came out quite how I envisioned, but I’ve gotten better with every cake and finally feel like I have a handle on the process. I suppose I could have just taken a class at some point, but where’s the fun in having someone who actually knows what they’re doing share their wisdom with you? ๐Ÿ˜‰

Owen’s 1st birthday party was on Saturday. I made a doggie cake for him because, as a 1-year-old, there are only two things in the world he loves: things with wheels and doggies. I spent several hours getting the cakes ready for the party and when I was finally able to show Owen the final product, he got super excited and giggled, just like when he sees a real dog! That excitement made all the hard work totally worth it.ย The cake ended up being a huge hit at the party, and not just because it was cute (which it was!). It was uber delicious, too, so I will share the recipes at the end of this post!

After all these years of figuring out how to decorate cakes on my own, I wanted to share my learnings with you. Remember, I’m an amateur…but I think most of us are, so hopefully these tips will be as helpful to you as they are to me!

1. Make the cake up to two days in advance and freeze it.

When you start decorating you want the cake to be frozen, so for time-saving purposes, it’s a good idea to bake the cake at least two days in advance. After baking, let the cakes cool completely on a cooling rack, wrap in plastic then freeze.

2. Use cake strips!

Have you tried theย cake strip trickย yet? I will forever be indebted to my friendย Lindsayย for sharing this trick with me. I get flat cakes out of the oven EVERY TIME.ย Click here for all the details.

3. Decorate the cake the day before you are going to serve the cake.

The times that I’ve saved the cake decorating for the day of the party were always far more stressful times and the cakes were not as well done. I HIGHLY recommend decorating the cake the day before you need it!

4. Make a ton of frosting.

The frosting recipe I will share below is enough to frost a 2-layer cake. When I know I’m going to be making a “cute” cake, I usually triple the recipe to be safe.

5. Spread a crumb coat on the frozen cake then refrigerate.

When you’re ready to start icing the cake, do a crumb coat first. This is a thin layer of frosting that goes on before the final layer. If the cake is frozen it is much easier to ice. The crumb coat is an extra step but SO WORTH IT. It’s really wonderful to have a layer of frosting where it doesn’t matter if crumbs show…it makes all the difference. Once the crumb coat is on, refrigerate or freeze the cake again until the frosting firms up (30-60 minutes).

Also, a quick note on carving. If you need to shape your cake, it’s helpful to carve it when it’s frozen. If it takes a while for you to get it all cut up, you may want to stick in the freezer again for 15-30 minutes before doing the crumb coat. Bottom line – frozen cakes are easier to deal with the whole way through the process!

6. Don’t let the food coloring dictate the colors.

I have a set of eight food color gels that I use, which provides me with lots of color options. However, I never use those colors straight up – I used to be a painter, I can’t resist mixing the colors! One of my favorite tricks is using brown to tone down the colors. I find most of the default food colors are a little bright for my taste. Adding a hint of brown makes nice, rich colors. Click here for a chart from Wilton for more color-mixing inspiration.

This color was made using blue, brown and black.

7. When you mix a color, make more than you think you need.

I love making my own colors, but there is one problem…it’s tricky mixing the same exact color more than once. When you create a color, make sure you mix more than you think you need so you don’t run out halfway through the princess’s dress or Superman’s cape!

8. Seek out inspiration for designs!

I have a book called “Cakes for Kids” by Matthew Mead that I LOVE. Either get your hands on that book or another similar title and use it for tips and inspiration. Searching the web is a great tool, too. I always do tons of looking around for shapes and ideas when coming up with the design.

9. Keep it Simple

A simple design can be powerful and it’s much easier to execute, so the likelihood of success increases dramatically. And remember, cut the cake into the shapes you need when it’s frozen!

Spiderman ended up being super simple – I just had to shave off the edges of a round cake!

10. Draw the design ahead of time.

Draw your design out on paper ahead of time, real-size. You can then lay that over the cake to cut it to the right shape and it’s not quite as scary when you put frosting to cake.

11. Buy a couple flat spatulas.

I randomly picked up a couple straight spatulas at Michael’s once, not realizing how awesome they are. They have totally changed my ability to spread icing on cakes – it looks so much more smooth and pretty than when I use a butter knife. I have two angled straight spatulas – one little, one big. They are wonderful!

12. Buy a set of decorating tips and don’t be afraid to use them.

You need decorating tips in order to decorate the cake, so make sure you have a set! I recommend using gallon-sized freezer ziploc bags instead of piping bags – it’s just a lot easier for clean-up. Also, I generally spread a flat layer of buttercream over the whole cake and then either use the small round tip to draw on the cake or a flower tip to fill in areas, like Spiderman’s eyes and the doggie’s nose.

13. Use waxed paper under the edges of the cake to keep the plate clean.

I wrote about this trick that my friend Nikki shared with me a few years ago and I still use it every time I frost a cake. Place your cake on the serving platter. Tear up strips of waxed paper, about 2″ – 3″ in length, then tuck them under the edges of the cake all the way around. When the cake is completely iced, carefully remove the paper. I use a thin knife to sort of hold the icing back so it doesn’t stick to the wax paper and pull away from the cake when I remove the paper.

14. Cake boards are awesome!

I love these cake boards for displaying the cake. They come in white, which looks cute, but you can always cover them with another color paper if you like (like pink for Hello Kitty). I bought a pack of big, round cake boards a few years ago and they’ve been wonderful to have handy!

15. Have fun!

If you don’t have fun doing this, then don’t do it. I really love doing making these cakes, so it is worth the work. Make sure you’re having fun!

I know it seems like Wilton sponsored this post, but they didn’t (although, I should have thought of that!). They just have great products that work! Wilton also has a page on their site “Cake and Dessert Decorating 101” that is very helpful if you want even more tips.

A word about the cake:

For years I used cake mixes and I encourage you to do the same. They’re easy and taste good. However, I have started making my cakes from scratch just because I found some recipes that I love…and I guess I like to make things harder on myself than I need to. The chocolate cake recipe below is seriously AWESOME. Just sayin’.

And a word about the frosting:

I love homemade buttercream and use it for almost all of my cakes (recipe below). I hate store-bought frosting. Making buttercream is in fact super easy so you should just bite the bullet and do it! The recipe below is perfect – my frosting comes out right every time.

I have used swiss meringue buttercream at times – it tastes fabulous and you can play around with how the surface of the frosting looks a bit more (for example, on the elephant cakeย I could create texture that I would not be able to do with regular buttercream). It’s a bit more work to make, so if I don’t need the flexibility of texture, I just stick with regular buttercream.

I’ve also used 7-minute frosting because I needed to (you have to check out Anna’s ghost birthday cake…so funny), but I HATE HOW IT TASTES, so I will only ever use it again if I have need to pipe little ghosts.

Feel free to chime in with your own cake decorating tips and tricks!

Chocolate Cake
Recipe type: Dessert
  • From Matthew Mead's Cakes for Kids
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus a little extra for the pans
  • ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup unsalted butter (Jane note: mine was salted, it was fine), at room temp
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs, at room temp
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1½ cups whole milk (Jane note: mine was 1%, it was fine)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Lightly grease two 8-inch rounds OR two 9-inch rounds OR one 10-inch round. Line bottom of pan with waxed paper or parchment paper, grease again, then coat pan with thin layer of flour. If doing cupcakes, line 24 cups with liners.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
  4. Using an electric mixer, on medium to high speed beat the butter in a large bowl for 30 seconds. Gradually add sugar ¼ cup at a time at medium speed and then beat 3-4 minutes more or until well combined. Scraped down sides of bowl. Beat 2 minutes more at medium. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating for 30 seconds after each addition. Beat in vanilla extract.
  5. With the mixer on low, add flour in 3 additions, alternating with milk in 2 additions, beating until just combined after each addition. Beat on medium-high speed for 20 seconds more.
  6. Spread batter in prepared pans - fill pans ⅔ full. Bake 30-35 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean (make sure you don't undercook! You want no jiggling in the middle and a clean toothpick).
  7. Place cake on wire rack and cool for 10 minutes. Invert onto the rack, lift of the pan, remove waxed paper and let cool completely on rack. Cupcakes should cool in pan for 15 minutes before removing.

Buttercream Frosting
  • 8 tablespoons butter, room temperature
  • 4 cups confectionersโ€™ sugar
  • 6 tablespoons cream or milk (cream is better)
  1. Beat butter with a mixer (I use my KitchenAid with the paddle attachment). Gradually work in the sugar, alternating with the cream and beating well after each addition. If the frosting is too thick to spread, add a little more cream, a teaspoon at a time. If it is too thin (which is unlikely), refrigerate for a few minutes; it will thicken as butter hardens. You can add up to 2 teaspoons of vanilla, but if you need white frosting leave the vanilla out!



  1. How did you know I needed help?! ๐Ÿ™‚ We have a b-day coming up next month and the theme is Star Wars Legos. I’ve found a cute tutorial to make a lego block cake but I was certain that I couldn’t make it look as good. My icing always ends up looks like a stormy sea. Maybe this year will be different!

    • Jane Maynard

      you seriously should come report back and let us know if the icing is stormy or clear skies! ๐Ÿ™‚ good luck! the lego block cake sounds adorable!

  2. 2

    Such cute cakes! I’ll have to remember these tips in the future…

  3. 3

    Spiderman is super cute, and I love that you made Owen a dog and bone cake. Adorable. I really think freezing helps make decorating easier. Great list of tips and tricks, Jane!

  4. Great post – I love making kids birthday cakes! I can’t understand how the cake strips work, but I’ll definitely be trying this out. Thanks for the great tip!

    • Jane Maynard

      you have to try the cake strips. and I’ve actually researched trying to figure out what the science is behind it and can’t find any good answers. I’ve given up and just accept it works and embrace it! ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. 5

    I make my kids cakes too. I have had great luck with the butter cream transfer, google it. There are some great you-tube videos. Works great every time and gives you endless possibilities of what can go on the cake. Then I don’t have to figure out how to carve a cake. That scares me! I have done: Curious George, Rapunzel, Iron Man, princess crowns, ninja’s… you get the idea.

  6. 6

    Do you have a guide where you got information on how to make cakes like these? The dog cake is super cute but I need more than just a picture to work from!

    • Jane Maynard

      Hi Julie!

      That book I mentioned has lots of wonderful cake shapes with templates and whatnot to show you how to build the shapes. The elephant cake I did was from that book. I would either try to get your hands on that book or just find another similar book that has ideas and templates.

      As for the dog, I literally just copied a dog face that was on a pair of Owen’s pajamas. ๐Ÿ™‚ I used a 10-inch cake pan, trimmed away a few spots to shape it like a dog’s head, then I cut the ears from an 8-inch cake that I baked separately (I doubled the cake recipe and had 2 8-inch cakes and a 10-in cake to work with). The ear shapes came drom the pajamas! The face I sort of just made up on my own after looking at tons of dog face illustrations on a google image search.

      I freehand a lot of my stuff, but what you could do is find an image online that you like, print it out the size that you need for the cake and lay it on top of the cake to trim it correctly. Or find a book with a good template! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Finding images that you can build from a round cake is always helpful – and simple simple simple is best!

      hope this is helpful! ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. 7

    For keeping buttercream white but having that extra note vanilla or almond flavoring adds – Wilton makes colorless vanilla and colorless almond extracts. You get the best of both worlds – white buttercream AND flavor!

  8. 8

    All I can say is, yep! Most of these are so true and I had to learn the hard way, because I have a hard head! The wax paper trick- awesome! Totally doing. Two stories: for my sons 1st Communion. Made the cake first thing in the morning and it literally crumbled as I iced it. Too late to bake another- shoved a bunch of strawberries as decoration and good to go. Last summer my daughter had hello kitty and I had this great idea to make HK cupcakes- easy: square marshmallow ears,jelly bean eyes, raisinette nose, piped whiskers, ribbon bow. Sounds cute huh? Then I made one and they looked awful! But my daughter LOVED them and insisted I make them all and bring them to the party. I am terrible at transforming my idea in to reality! They always love my homemade cakes and so does everyone else because they are fresh!

    • Jane Maynard

      I have so been there…ideas turning into reality don’t always work! but if the kids are happy and the cake tastes good, that is a success for sure!!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. 9

    GREAT hints!! I needed this!

  10. 10

    Can I confess that the Spiderman cake absolutely melts my heart? I remember when you posted about it originally and was just so smitten! And hearing about Owen’s excitement over seeing his cakes that you had worked so hard on was pretty heart-melting too ๐Ÿ™‚ Overall awesome tips — I’m feeling inspired!

  11. 11

    FANTASTIC post Jane!! I pinned it!

  12. 12

    My wonderful daughter in law found your web site She knows I love making the famlily birthday cakes. We have our 4 year old great grandsons birthday and he told me he wanted a red spiderman cake, so your picture and instructions will be very helpful. Thank You so very much

    • Jane Maynard

      you’re welcome! such good timing!

      For the black lines, I purchased a tube of the black decorating frosting/gel – I think it was just at the regular grocery store. I used my start tip and buttercream frosting for the eyes.

      happy birthday to the cute 4 year old grandson!

  13. 13

    This summer my DIL texted to see if I remembered how I made my son’s (now her husband) 8th birthday cake becuase he wanted another one just like it for this year’s 28th birthday. The fire hat? No the swimming pool with teddy grahams. It was fun to go through the memories with them of all the cakes I had made for him all those years ago.

    AND I still had the picture in my cake decorating file that I used for inspiration, which I sent to her. According to his memory I only glanced at the magazine cover while waiting in line at the grocery store and went home and made it (parents are SO smart when the kids are young). She did a great job adding new flair to the cake special for him and it tasted great.

    So good job Jane at making the special memories for your kids.

    • Jane Maynard

      I love that story…so cute! see, those cakes stick in your brain forever!!

      thanks for your cute comment!

  14. 14

    Such cute cakes! I am trying to not use artificial coloring because of them being made with petroleum…yes, that is what red #40 is made with! Do you know anything about these Wilton gels and the ingredients? Are they made with artificial coloring?

    • Jane Maynard

      I am certain that the gels I used have artificial colors in them…they are way too bright and vibrant to not be artificial. I figure since I hardly ever color stuff it won’t kill us…right? ๐Ÿ˜‰

      while natural food colors are often more muted, I must say that they are often very beautiful…I’ve seen other food bloggers using them and thought their stuff was really pretty.

      this blog post was especially impressive with the natural food colors:×9/

  15. 15
    Nikki CB

    I’m super impressed – both by the cakes and the post.

  16. This is such a great post! Thanks for the tips!

  17. 17

    That spiderman cake would make my sons birthday alone!

  18. 18

    What kind of “cream” do you use for the buttercream? Im dying to use your recipe! ๐Ÿ™‚
    Ps.Iabsolutely loved your spiderman cake

    • Jane Maynard

      that’s a good question! just whatever cream I have on hand…whipping, light, heavy, whatevs! if I don’t have cream, milk works great, too.

      and thank you – that spiderman cake is one of my favorites! ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. 19


    I am going to make my first “cute cake” for my 2 year olds birthday party next weekend. I am planning on decorating the cake on Friday. Would it be ok to make, color and refrigerate the frosting on Thursday?

    • Jane Maynard

      hi allison!

      first off, what will the cake be of? so fun!

      yes, you can definitely make the frosting on thursday and refrigerate it. it will get quite hard in the fridge, so make sure you take it out of the fridge a couple hours (maybe even just 1 hour, but plan on 2 to be safe!) before you plan to decorate with it so that it can get back to a spreadable consistency.

      good luck!!!

  20. 20

    Hi Jane

    I found your website when I was searching for easy puppy cakes and I am so happy I did! I’m usually terrible at baking cakes, let alone decorating them but after following your tips I’m pleased to say that I’ve just finished making the puppy cake for my son’s 2nd birthday tomorrow…and it’s a success! I’m really happy with how it looks. Fingers crossed it tastes good too ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thank you!

    Lenise, all the way over in Melbourne, Australia.

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  22. Your spiderman cake is spectacularly simple yet so spectacularly awesome. Great job Jane, thanks so much for sharing.

  23. 23

    How many cakes did you make to use for the Spider-Man cake? 1 or 2 stacked on each other? And what size?
    Making one this weekend for my sons 3rd birthday!!

    • hi kristen!

      you know, I can’t remember…I THINK it was just a 1-layer cake, but it would be super easy to still make this cake and stack two cakes, then you would have more cake to serve from your one cake (if that makes sense). If you do 2-layers, I would just stack the cakes when you shape them into the spiderman head shape.

      am I making any sense here?!?!?! ๐Ÿ™‚

      yay! so glad you are making it! have fun!

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